By - Wayne Linklater 27/01/2014

Resurgent killing for horn that is then traded on the international black market for thousands of dollars a gram threatens to undo two decades of progress recovering the black rhinoceros from near extinction. Countries are mobilising and people are dying protecting rhino from international crime syndicates that out manoeuvre and out gun them. Do not underestimate our situation – we at war for biodiversity and the environment.

In this context the sale of a permit to hunt a black rhino in Namibia for US$350,000 at the Dallas Safari Club created a mad furore. For many, especially of the well-to-do, comfortable, urbanites of the West, conservation hunting is oxymoronic.

Neto - field assistant and rhino ranger - and I shelter behind tree trunks as Alice mock charges. Black rhino, when not frightened away, can be aggressive towards people and so make themsleves as easy, and thrilling, target for hunters.
Neto Pule, field assistant and rhino ranger, and I shelter behind tree truncks as Alice mock charges. Black rhino can be aggressive towards people and so make themselves easy, and thrilling, targets for hunters. See also the video of a rhino charing below.

But we should try to achieve a more considered and carefully articulated response to this event than the one heard from many individuals and groups who claim the mantle of animal rights or conservation in our first-world countries.

Some conservation organisations, like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, support the hunt. Why would they?

On my way to answering this question, let me begin with my experience of stalking rhino.

Hunting rhino is easy

It is not difficult to shoot a rhinoceros – thousands of successful poachers and the near extinction of the species attest to that. They can be dangerous, of course. Regrettably, I have seen how dangerous rhino can be and I don’t wish to revisit the images seared into my brain that still wake me some nights. But rhino are also very vulnerable to a bullet.

In my work with black rhino I have been close enough to shoot over 100, and I am not a practiced shot. But black rhino make the task easy. They leave their heavy, easily followed, tracks from waterholes where they must drink each day. They are terribly poor sighted – relying on their sense of hearing and smell to detect danger – and so I have routinely stalked rhino to within 30 metres downwind without being detected.

How close can you get?

One of the students in my research group, Roan Plotz, who recently finished his PhD, measured how quickly a black rhino detects a person walking towards it by asking his field ranger and assistant to walk crosswind, without concealment, directly at black rhino. The black rhino failed to detect 77% of approaches before Roan had to call off the approach out of fear for the field ranger’s safety. Even when detected, the field ranger first got to within 23m of the black rhino (59m if there are oxpecker birds on the rhinos back, but that is another story for another time).

We had been watching this adult female rhino for over 20 minutes undetected. But then she smelt or heard us. I am unsure which. She turned towards us to investigate, paused for what seemed several minutes, but then charged. This was not a mock charge. Snorting as she ran at us, she hit the other side of the tree trunk with her horns and full weight - more than 1 tonne. I felt the tree move and almost droped the camera

Rhinos’ death-wish behaviour

If disturbed by the smell or sound of danger – a snapping twig, a scent of human – rhino lift their heads and turn to face the danger, thus providing the perfect forehead shot. They will flee if they detect people, but not always. Sometimes they will approach to confirm the danger. Sometimes they will charge, but often only to threaten.

I have stood behind many a tree trunk with a black rhino 2 or 3 car lengths away having halted its charge, and occassionally even within arms-reach as it pounded the other side of the tree with its horn. My field ranger could have rested the loaded barrel of his rifle against the rhinos’ forehead.

All of these behaviours provide the hunter of black rhino ample opportunity for a well-placed bullet. White rhino are even easier to kill. They are social and prefer to eat grass, and so live in small groups and more open habitat with better visibility for the stalker.

Hunting as part-solution

Nevertheless, some find the power and prestige, or mana as we call it in New Zealand, of killing a rhino with modern weaponry an achievement. And, against my experience, I accept their preferences as another example of the diversity of human approaches to our natural world because hunters can play a small but important role in the conservation of endangered species like rhino.

Solutions to the extinction crisis come in many forms. I wager that there are almost as many parts to the solutions as the people contributing to them. I am not a hunter. But I am a rhino conservationist. The evidence leads me to believe that they can sometimes be the same thing.

I’m unlikely to ever want to kill a rhino. But, here – in the following posts of this series – I will defend rhino hunting as an appropriate, useful, and important contribution to species conservation.

It will be a journey in ecology, economics, and social psychology, not of rhino, but of people.